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Distracted Driving: Technology Isn’t the Problem

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Posted on Mar 11, 2014

By Juan Bagnell

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California recently made news when the 5th District Court of Appeal ruled that it was legal to use a phone for GPS and mapping while operating a motor vehicle. Judging by public reaction, the decision was polarizing. But we should all agree that technology is evolving faster than our legislative and legal systems can keep up.

In January 2012, Steven Spriggs was pulled over and issued a $165 ticket for using his iPhone while driving. Spriggs countered that he wasn’t using the smartphone to talk, but instead for turn by turn navigation. The actual citation claimed he was in violation of CA Vehicle Code 23123, which reads:

(a) A person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving.

The 5th District court agreed with Spriggs, stating that the code was vaguely worded and did not apply to GPS operation.

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This ruling follows on the heels of another high profile case involving Google Glass, a wearable heads up display. In October 2013, Cecilia Abadie was pulled over for speeding and issued an additional citation for “driving with monitor visible to driver.” California Vehicle Code 27602 states:

(a) A person shall not drive a motor vehicle if a television receiver, a video monitor, or a television or video screen, or any other similar means of visually displaying a television broadcast or video signal that produces entertainment or business applications, is operating and is located in the motor vehicle at a point forward of the back of the driver’s seat, or is operating and the monitor, screen, or display is visible to the driver while driving the motor vehicle.
(b) Subdivision (a) does not apply to the following equipment when installed in a vehicle:
(1) A vehicle information display.
(2) A global positioning display.
(3) A mapping display.
(4) A visual display used to enhance or supplement the driver’s view forward, behind, or to the sides of a motor vehicle for the purpose of maneuvering the vehicle.

In January, a San Diego court threw out the citation as the officer was not able to prove that Abadie was actually using Glass at the time he pulled her over. Traffic Commissioner John Blair said the language of VC 27602 was broad enough to apply to wearable technology, but that he hopes lawmakers will review the legislation on this issue.

Both of these examples show us that progress is being made throughout our judicial system. Judges and commissioners are better understanding the nuance these emerging technologies bring to the discussion.

Unfortunately, the dismissal of both cases does little to improve the tools law enforcement officers rely on while interacting with drivers. We would hope for a more progressive approach to these issues, but it seems many communities are choosing more reactionary legislation. Now lawmakers in Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia are introducing bills that would ban technology like Google Glass.

We’re arriving at a crossroads where commerce, technology, common sense and the law are colliding.

In the case of Spriggs, with more study we might be able to show that various actions are more or less distracting to a driver, but amending laws for each of those various activities is a foolhardy exercise. It’s completely impossible to enforce, as the action of holding a phone to look at a map looks entirely similar to holding a phone to initiate a call. One might argue that it shouldn’t matter what activity is being performed on the phone, that holding a phone while driving should be off-limits. Unfortunately, our legal system doesn’t work that way.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a heads up device like Glass might solve some of the ergonomic concerns of interacting with data while driving. It forces the user to focus his or her eyes up and out in front toward the windshield, instead of down and inside the vehicle like a phone. Glass’ display is also transparent, unlike our phones, which allows for the ability to “look through” whatever information might be on the screen. There’s plenty of room for abuse, but even an action as simple as seeing how fast your car is traveling could be safer with an eye level display than with the current solutions offered by vehicle manufacturers.

Those same manufacturers are also complicit in offering up vehicle information displays that now provide text, apps and other entertainment services to drivers. Many systems are fitted with smooth, featureless touch screens that require more visual and tactile attention from the driver. One has to wonder if an in-dash unit that can check my Facebook feed would be targeted to the same degree as a wearable heads up display. Will lawmakers rush to amend laws like VC 27602 when their target is the Ford Motor Co. instead of Google?

Every day new services and activities are being delivered to our pocketable computers. It’s a fair bet that we’ll continue to interact more with data in the future, but that also means we need to start having frank discussions about how these tools are implemented in our daily lives. According to the National Safety Council, more than 100,000 automobile accidents a year are the result of some form of mobile technology distracting a driver.

Our lawmakers absolutely need to take action, but the reactionary process we’ve arrived at is close to theater. Targeting specific devices after they’ve filtered into the ecosystem won’t do much to change behavior, leaves open too many loopholes and often stands in the way of emerging technologies that might help the situation.

We need to stigmatize distracted driving, in the same way that we are morally outraged by drunk driving. We also need to educate and empower law enforcement to act not on what tech is inside a car, but how well a driver operates his or her vehicle. Just as it doesn’t matter what someone has to drink before getting behind the wheel, if the driver can’t handle his or her vehicle safely, it’s still a DUI. Texting, mapping, calling, or playing “Angry Birds”—if people can’t safely navigate their car, they deserve a ticket.

Technology might help improve the situation, and it shouldn’t instantly be vilified simply for being novel.


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